Some years ago I came across a little piece written by Jim Klobuchar, columnist with the Minneapolis Star. He titled it: ‘They Crossed a Street Together.’
“Six-thirty is not a bad time to be walking the city street. It reveals more to the stroller when it is quiet, because it gives him room and time to focus on what is happening and to notice the two people across the street.
“One is walking in the intersection, a young woman of about twenty, wearing a plain beige topcoat, and hatless. The breeze tosses strands of hair over her eyes, and these she tries to dislodge by flinging her head back every few feet of progress. She cannot do it with her hands, because both arms are thrust into waist-high aluminum crutches. Her legs are enclosed in leather tresses below the knees, and she moves in deliberate, lunging strides, each precisely as long as the last.
“The other person stands waiting on the curb. He is about fifty, thin, wearing an athletic jacket and a billed cap.
“Halfway through the intersection the young woman stops and turns, evidently having heard something. The sound was the tapping of the man’s white cane behind her. She glances down the street and then slowly and awkwardly pivots on her crutches to retrace her steps. At about the time the light changes she has arrived back at the curb and, smiling, offers her hand to the man in the billed cap. They talk for a moment, and together begin crossing the street when the light turns again.
“I don’t think it was until then that the man realized that his escort was crippled. His hand, holding her left arm where she had placed it, touched her metal crutch. He stopped. He spoke to her and he may have been apologizing for causing her a problem, or he may have been thanking her.
“Of all the people on the street, why should a girl on crutches have to guide a blind man across the street? She laughed again and tugged at his cap and seemed to be chiding him. Who else on this side of the street? And why not a girl on crutches? And if he didn’t get in gear the light was going to change again. It did and a motorist drew up to wait. He was not impatient. He would have waited all night, because even as the man and the young woman walked past his idling car, he seemed reluctant to drive off.
“The man with the cane put his hand on the girl’s shoulder and together they reached the other side of the street. He embraced her momentarily, and sought to touch her cheek. They were two people, strangers, sharing a very profound truth about themselves, and about each other, and it seemed that at this moment they understood something about humanity that others-less fortunate than they-might never understand. A minute later they were gone, in different directions, leaving the street a little less empty than it had been before.”
What was ‘the profound truth’ they shared about themselves and about each other? What was it they came to understand about humanity that others, less fortunate than they, might never understand?
It was a brief encounter. She had something he needed –sight; and he had something she needed – a need that she could meet by responding to the tapping of the cane, an opportunity to be of help. She didn’t miss the moment; she didn’t defer or neglect it; it was unlikely that she would ‘pass this way again.’
Among other occasions, I used this reading in my candidating sermon for the ministerial search committee nearly twenty-five years ago.
Then, two years ago I read that a woman named Amy Klobuchar from Minneapolis was elected to the U.S. Senate, so I googled Jim Klobuchar, got an address and wrote to him, telling him about the use I’ve made of his moving story about two people crossing the street together all those years ago.
A week later I got a telephone call from Jim Klobuchar thanking me – he told me that Amy is his daughter, and he asked me about the story, to refresh his memory. I summarized the piece and he said, “Oh, yes, now I remember that piece…” and he explained the context in which it was written…something was going on in Minneapolis at the time and the story about two people crossing the street together was used as a parable.
It’s a wonderful, timeless parable: life boils down to the realization that basically we’re just crossing the street together; that we have it within ourselves to be helpful, that we can share this life journey and we can cross from one moment to the next, providing companionship, using whatever resources we have.
The story reminds us that we’re all limited; we all have a need for assistance, from time to time, and we appreciate it when it comes; yet we’re reluctant to ask for help, afraid, as the story says, that we’re imposing ourselves on someone.
The man who was visually impaired needed help, so he tapped his cane. The young woman needed an opportunity to be of help, so she responded to the tapping of his cane.
It’s a parable about human dignity, or what Emerson called being ‘noble,’ when he wrote:
“He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted.”
Then Emerson summarizes the spirit of transcendentalism, saying, “If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being.”
“Who does a good deed is instantly ennobled. Who does a mean deed is by the act itself contracted.”
Emerson refers to ‘the moral sentiment’ as an intuition. He explains what he means, saying; “The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness.
“This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man…This sentiment lies at the foundation of society, and successively creates all forms of worship…it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing. On the contrary, the absence of this primary faith is the presence of degradation.”
All of this came to mind when I read a book that David (Vita) and Marjolijn (De Jager) gave me — a book written by the Dutch writer, Rob Riemen, titled Nobility of Spirit; a Forgotten Ideal. Marjolijn translated his book from the Dutch. That’s how she and David got to know of Rob Riemen and to meet him; and they’ve made plans to have me meet him when he visits speaks in New York at the end of October.
Riemen opens his wonderful, insightful book with a line from Whitman: “Who are you indeed who would talk or sing to America?” He himself talks of and sings to America, so Whitman’s words about himself ring true.
In the opening lines from his book he writes: “You cannot plan the most important events in your life – they just happen to you. The day that a friendship or a great love wanders into your life is unanticipated; the hour that a beloved person departs this life is unanticipated; the one even that changes your life forever is unanticipated.”
This comment is a lead in to the story of his encounter with Elisabeth Mann Borgese, youngest daughter of the great writer, Thomas Mann, who is Rob Riemen’s ‘noble ideal.’
Mann’s daughter Elisabeth was the only female member of the group that founded the Club of Rome, the international organization that got us to focus, early on, with environ-mental issues, work taken up by Al Gore and others.
Elisabeth introduced Riemen to Joseph Goodman who was taken by the works of Walt Whitman and put them to music. He titled it: Symphonic Cantata for Solo, Choir and Orchestra, Nobility of Spirit, Words of Walt Whitman, by Joseph Goodman.
I appreciate the coincidence of the name Goodman as it relates to Whitman’s poetry and Emerson’s assertion that ‘he who does a good deed is instantly ennobled.’ Doing a good deed, or living a good life, is what it means to be a good man…Goodman.
The Cantata opens with Whitman’s well-worn words about living in New York City: “I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island/give me faces and streets/Let me see new ones every day.” Then the chorus follows with Whitman’s words: “People, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions, pageants,/Manhattan streets with their powerful throbs, with beating drums as now,/Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.”
As he and Elisabeth looked at Goodman’s musical score, Riemen asked Joe Goodman why he had chosen this particular topic and Joe responded, “Nobility of spirit is the great ideal! It is the realization of true freedom, and there can be no democracy, no free world, without this moral foundation. Whitman’s masterpiece, his whole vision, is exactly about this: life as a quest for truth, love, beauty, goodness, and freedom; life as the art of becoming human through the cultivation of the human soul. All this is expressed by ‘nobility of spirit’: the incarnation of human dignity.”
Rob Riemen was trained as a theologian, but he chose not to serve as a parish minister – he preferred writing, and more specifically, journalism. He’s the editor of NEXUS journal which attracts internationally-known educators and theologians who focus on issues like love, death and evil.
Riemen says: “Life isn’t always harmonious. That would be a lie. I’d rather live with the idea of existence as struggle in which one never, never gives up. In my (parents’) house we couldn’t even spell the words ‘give up’.”
“Intellectuals should keep their distance from politics or they can’t speak the truth anymore because with political viewpoints things get in the way of truth…[In the Netherlands, where he’s from] culture is imploding and in its stead comes the very meager concept as long as all is well with the economy…”
Riemen insists that without nobility of spirit, culture simply vanishes; nobility of spirit is the quintessence of civilized life and sits at the soul of each life.
Rieman’s ideal example of the noble spirit is Thomas Mann who said that “myth is the foundation of life; it is the timeless schema, the pious formula into which life flows when it reproduces its traits out of the unconscious.”
The title of Rob Riemen’s book, Nobility of Spirit, is subtitled, A Forgotten Ideal. While it’s provocative to say that ‘nobility of spirit is a forgotten ideal,’ I would disagree; I don’t hink it’s a ‘forgotten ideal.’ It is an ideal brought to mind by its absence more often than by its presence in contemporary life.
G.K. Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
To paraphrase Chesterton, nobility of spirit has not been forgotten, it is seen so rarely in our time that it seems to have been forgotten.
At the heart of the Christian-spirit-at-its-best sits this ideal and it is an ideal shared by every religion – the noble human spirit is not forgotten – its absence brings it to mind all the more; it is sorely absent in the current political climate, specifically the presidential campaign; it is clearly absent from Wall Street’s greed, and it is clearly absent from so much of talk radio that spews so much hatred, and it is so often absent from the religious climate characterized by fundamentalisms with the extremism that divides us all between saved and damned, in or out, good or bad based on some set of stated beliefs.
But the ideal of the noble person is not forgotten – it’s just that its absence is a stark reminder of an ideal we cherish.
Let’s look again at the phrase in the line he quotes from Goodman that points to the ‘incarnation of human dignity.’
In Christian theology the word ‘incarnation’ has a very specific meaning: Jesus was/is God; God took human flesh or ‘form’ in Jesus as the Christ.
But in a more general sense, ‘incarnation’ simply means that which is built in to a human form – we say, for example, that Hitler was ‘evil incarnate,’ to incarnate is to personify some aspect or quality of life. Someone said last week that the crisis on Wall Street stems from ‘greed incarnate.’
Rob Riemen’s powerful essays point to the ideal of the ‘nobility of the spirit incarnate.’ He locates it in his hero, Thomas Mann, as Joe Goodman located it in his hero, Walt Whitman.
Emerson suggested that Jesus was ‘virtue incarnate,’ but not exclusively divine.
He said, “Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world.”
“He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! …The understanding caught this high chant from the poet’s lips, and said, in the next age, `This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man.’ The idioms of his language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes. Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic teaching of Greece and of Egypt, before. He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”
These lines from Emerson form the heart of what we know as transcendentalism, the idea that God dwells within every person as our potential for goodness: ‘who does a good deed is instantly ennobled…’
The ‘nobility of the human spirit’ is the Humanist ideal.
It’s not complicated. Theologies often make it seem complicated. The story of two people crossing the street together reminds us that it’s really very simple.
Rob Riemen’s encounters with Elizabeth Mann Borgese and Joe Goodman were important to him, but they were brief encounters – both died shortly after their New York meeting. They inspired him to continue his own spiritual journey, and his quest for ‘nobility of spirit,’ which he located in Thomas Mann and which he traces back to Athens and our forebears in Greece — Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, and modern philosophers like Camus.
It’s a big street we’re crossing, from birth to death; we all need the inspiration we get from one another, the courage we get from one another, the mutual regard – the respect – we get from one another.
‘The man with the white cane put his hand on the shoulder of the girl in crutches and together they reached the other side of the street.’
May we listen for the tapping of the cane and offer a hand when we’re able. It’s a busy intersection and the light could change at any second, so ‘do it now, do not defer or neglect it, for you will not pass this way again.’